Permanent Exhibit: A Review.
In Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, September 2018), Matthew Vollmer makes an exhibit of his mind (and ours) in a series of forty-one short essays that summon the reader in. Each essay is a single paragraph, a format that lends itself to tracing the familiar, associative flow of unvoiced thoughts. Vollmer voices these thoughts, letting his readers witness as thoughts flow and intermingle. "Hatchling," for instance, traces Vollmers processing as it shifts from disturbing YouTube videos of police brutality to forgetting something he was supposed to fetch upstairs to a text from his wife, complete with chicks hatching in emoji form. Permanent Exhibit is the ultimate act of interpersonal meditation, observing thoughts in real time and stopping only rarely to examine the flow.
A departure from his previous collections of short fiction (Gateway to Paradise (2015) and Inscriptions for Headstones (2012)), Permanent Exhibit is Vollmers literary foray into the very real world of his own life. The exact details of his memories and experiences are secondary, though, to the process of their creation and interaction within Vollmers mind, which models the reader's own internal and intimate workings. Each essay is a collage of thought-it is familiar and comfortable, the feel of tangential wonderings intertwining with deeply held anxieties a seemingly universal experience. "Night Thoughts" is among Vollmers most successful essays: it narratively falls down an online rabbit hole, a relatable trip for any contemporary reader with internet access, but one that is rarely presented for reflection, let alone chronicled in book form. Vollmers passive but insistent Googling begins when a Top 40 radio DJ drops the name of the Ha-wai'i estate where Justin Bieber is vacationing. The Google image of the estate makes Vollmer think of the world's largest funeral home, so he Googles that. And down the chute he (and we) go. Recalling this experience from "Night Thoughts," a recent interview with Brooklyn Rail finds Vollmer marveling "at what [he is] capable of learning via the internet, like how to employ a transformative method for scrambling eggs, or how to "teen proof" my home, or what has Boz Scaggs been up to recently, or what's that new Grand Theft Auto V update all about?" Through his essays, we feel this capacious marveling almost visceral-ly, as if delivering a communal headrush of (probably) knowing too much. Permanent Exhibit is at its most engaging in these moments, when Vollmer layers his thoughts beneath or above another medium--the Internet, his young son's books--and shows the synchronous exchanges between the two.
Of course, the world more broadly functions as its own composite medium--a stream of information and stimulus--and much of Permanent Exhibit treats it as such. Work emails, fond memories of the early days of relationships, idiosyncratic observations about baristas and mail carriers, the unsettling and unintentional glance at roadkill while walking on the sidewalk--these provide the ephemeral infrastructure upon which thought can rest and wander. The banality of some moments of rest (see: work emails) is exactly that--banal--but subsequent wanderings infuse new life into such moments, causing readers to see the vibrant thought that has been resting there all along. The juxtaposition of the banal and the wildly speculative, the natural and the social, the resting and the wandering--these enact life as it is lived, and Vollmer is our representative consciousness. Kirkus Review has aptly compared Vollmers reverent prose regarding the natural world, tonally, to the poetry of the late Mary Oliver, and his candid and often humorous takes on family life to David Sedaris. Vollmers unique strength, though, lies in knitting it all together, one single paragraph-essay at a time.
Just as his writing process relied on momentum, the consciousness propelling the book demands movement, as when Vollmer, an avid cyclist, bikes, or when he walks his dog or drives his son to a soccer game or puts off going to sleep or replying to emails. The momentum accumulates without necessarily building anything, replicating the in media res- ness that is life as it actually happens. Written in 2016 and 2017, Permanent Exhibit's sense of America becoming "Trump's America" is ambient, but inescapable. The essay "Sinkhole" begins:
You're not supposed to look at your phone first thing in the morning, at least that's what an article I read recently--on my phone--told me, but I always wake up wondering what happened in the world while I was sleeping, so that's exactly what, every morning, I do. Today I scrolled through my feed--bypassing links to articles about Trump's call to have Hillary assassinated and "Alfred Hitchcock's Literary Legacy" and all those female runners who somebody keeps murdering--I paused, and let one of those "watch from above as food is prepared" videos play ...
His sentences and thoughts are as relentless as the scroll, and his pages succeed at holding something that is constantly moving, that doesn't necessarily want to be held, but that doesn't not want to be held, either. Vollmer is honest in a matter-of-fact way that doesn't seek to reveal anything except his thoughts as he is thinking them. With this practice, he provides an opportunity for his readers to see their own thinking, with and without the technology that influences it, in new relief.
Permanent Exhibit started as a series of Facebook status updates, a reflexive vehicle for reflecting on an always-on culture simultaneously distracted by and overfocused on the churn of the news cycle. On the platform most often blamed for this pervasive distraction and overfocusing, Vollmer created a public space to let his mind wander. He says of writing the essays that make up Permanent Exhibit, "most of the time, once I started writing one, I would have no idea where I was going [...] which, for me, as a writer, was like riding a bicycle down a really steep, unfamiliar hill: I didn't know where the switchbacks would take me. My eyes were wide open. I had to hold on tight." As a way to retroactively organize the associative flow of thoughts that compose Permanent Exhibit, Vollmer created a digital index for the topics covered, from "AARP" to "Zucchini," with everything between--"Grand< Theft Auto V" and "Houston, Whitney" and "Iran" and "Man, named Purl." In many ways, this index is the best way to understand the book, to see in a simple list the volume and range and idiosyncratic specificity of thought that tenderizes the human mind.
This index and the essays it accompanies are thoughtful products of the attention--or distraction--economy. Permanent Exhibit is notable for its permanence of form (the exhibition of the mind), but relies on the ephemerality of its content (the thoughts within). Vollmers essays eschew the common rhetorics of outright fear and criticism of the economy we live in and the technology that defines it. Instead, they provide a way forward for both --Permanent Exhibit is an experiment full of meaning and thought, one that asks what we have to gain by being where we are and using what we have, rather than what we have lost.